Best Headphones 2021- Buying Guide

Best Headphones 2021- Buying Guide

Andrew Park
22 minute read

If you're new to the world of high end headphones, we invite you to read the Best Headphone 2021 Buying Guide below on how to best spend your money in this hobby, what to look for, and what to watch out for. But for those just looking for our recommendations, we've broken them down into a number of categories below. This article will continue to be updated with additional guides for new categories in the future. At the moment, we're going to begin with the best open back audiophile headphones in 2021, as well as the best in-ear headphones of 2021, and best closed-back headphones in 2021.

Note that these recommendations are not based on headphones that have been released in 2021, but rather what we (the Headphones.com review team) consider to be the best headphones available at a given price point as of right now - based on what we've had the opportunity to evaluate so far! There are of course headphones out there that we haven't heard, and it's entirely possible they'll be added in the future once we hear them. This list is also based on headphones that one can readily purchase, and excludes items that are discontinued or only available on the used market.

Lastly, this list should not be taken as a blanket statement of what's good or suggest that everything that didn't make this list is bad, and there will be reasons to choose one product over another within this list depending on listener preference or what you're specifically looking for. With that said, what follows is our headphone buying guides of 2021 to help you pick the right headphones for you.

Best Open Back Headphones 2021

Pictured: Audeze LCD-5

Audeze LCD-5 ($4500)

The Audeze LCD-5 represents real progress in terms of sound quality in headphones. Interestingly, it's not the tonal balance and frequency response that makes it shine, rather, it's merely okay. But with that said, the LCD-5 is one of the most detailed headphones available, period. In particular, it absolutely shines in the bass and lower registers, yielding control and incisiveness for tones that token those frequencies in ways that you didn't think possible before.

Focal Utopia ($4400)

The Utopia for me is the world's most detailed dynamic driver headphone available in 2021. It's been out for some years now, but in my view it still hasn't been dethroned for that title. More importantly, the Utopia is also the slam king. Surprising right? Because the Utopia doesn't have a significantly elevated bass response, yet it has some of the most impactful, punchy and engaging sound of any headphone period. Additionally, this is another headphone that has top tier technical performance that doesn't sacrifice tonal balance and frequency response top get there.

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Best Closed Back Headphones 2021

Meze Liric | Headphones.com

Meze Liric ($2000)

From Chrono

"Powered by the new, compact, and lightweight MZ4 driver, which was derived from the Empyrean’s MZ3 driver, Meze and Rinaro’s promise of delivering a top-tier, closed-back headphone for serious high-end listening at-home or on-the-go is gracefully realized in the Liric. Sure, it might not boast the same level of technical performance as the open-back Elite and Empyrean, but of the three it's the one that I found to be the most enjoyable. In addition to its compact, elegant, and precision-crafted design, it strikes a really nice balance between its warm bass, linear mids, and nuanced, well-extended highs."

DCA Stealth ($4000)

This year Dan Clark Audio entered the summit price tier with their closed-back planar magnetic flagship, the Stealth. While these headphones are prohibitively expensive, DCA have done something quite novel when it comes to tuning it. For starters, it's a closed-back planar magnetic headphone, which can be quite difficult to get the tuning right without incurring significant tradeoffs in terms of technical performance. In order to solve this problem, DCA invented what they've called their "Acoustic Metamaterial Tuning System" or AMTS. Essentially this is a piece that fits in between the driver and the ear that functions as a highly sophisticated waveguide, effectively deleting problem frequencies that might be incurred by reflections from the back of the cup. The result is a flagship headphone that very closely matches the Harman target, has excellent detail, and top tier separation and layering capabilities.

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Best In-ear Headphones 2021

64 Audio U12t

Pictured: 64 Audio U12t, Dunu Blanche Cable, iBasso DX160 DAP

64 Audio U12t ($2000)

It had to make the guide of course. The IEM that is, in my opinion, the world's best IEM, my favorite IEM. The U12t really makes almost zero mistakes thanks to its slightly warm, yet clean tonality with a touch of spice up top in the treble. And it's no technical slouch either, from its superb BA bass, impactful center imaging, and authoritative macro-dynamics.

Symphonium Helios ($1100)

If the CFA Andromeda 2020 is an IEM for more low-key listeners, then the Helios is an IEM for listeners who like their IEM to demand attention. The Helios has a more segmented, clean presentation with a slight upper-midrange emphasis and a class-leading (probably better than class-leading if I'm being perfectly honest!) treble response.

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The Basics - What you need to know about buying headphones

Pictured: Focal Utopia

If you’re new to the world of high quality sound from headphones, there are a number of things to think about when checking out the landscape of what’s available. Before giving a list of recommended options at various price tags, here are some things to consider. Most important of all is to consider your use case - or in other words, for what purpose are you going to be using the headphones you’re considering buying.

If your primary use case is sitting at home in a secluded environment, congratulations, the best headphone experiences are available to you. Specifically, you’re able to dive into the world of open-back audiophile headphones. If, however, you’re considering a headphone for the office, to take with you on-the-go, for travel or any other portable situation, you will need to look at either closed-back headphones or in-ear headphones.

Open-back Headphones: As the name suggests, open-back headphones aren’t suitable for noisy environments because they let sound in and out. This means that your neighbors will hear your music, and you’ll hear them talking loudly on their phones (or imagine any other situation here). The benefit of open-back headphones is that they don’t generally incur the acoustic challenges of closing off the back of the cup. This can create resonances that then go back into the ear, leading to less than desirable tonality concessions. In short, open-back headphones have the potential to sound significantly better than closed-back headphones.

Closed-back Headphones: These are more well-suited for office or noisy environments where at least one of the primary goals is to block sound coming in or going out. Simply put, if you do not need to do this, then there is very little reason to look into closed-back headphones. However closed-backs have traditionally been the more commonplace type of headphone particularly because this use case is a particularly desirable function.

Pictured: DCA Stealth

Portable Headphones and More: Now, within closed-back headphones you also have the possibility of active noise cancelling (ANC), but that’s not to say there aren’t high end, wired audiophile headphones that forego the ANC in an attempt at achieving better sound quality simply with passive isolation going on. Typically, noise cancelling headphones will be ideally suited for portable or travel use cases, and should not be considered unless those are the primary applications. Why? The main reason for this is that ANC headphones make additional concessions to achieve their functionality - at least in nearly all cases.

So, while not all closed-back headphones are going to sound great, if your use case doesn’t involve travel or a high degree of portability, you’re likely able to find a better experience in sound quality with passive over-ear closed-back headphones. Moreover, this will typically still do the job of isolating you from your environment, such as an air conditioner hum in the background, or ensuring your music doesn’t disturb others around you sufficiently.

Another option for portability is to go with in-ear headphones, otherwise known as IEMs (in-ear monitors). These are becoming a much more popular option, especially since great strides have been made in this area with regards to sound quality. Now, while there may be good reasons to look into IEMs over passive closed-back headphones, their main advantage is in portability. Look into IEMs if you require an ultra-transportable option - and, many are even choosing to use IEMs over over-ear headphones these days as well, even though in my opinion there is still some distance overall when it comes to sound quality.

Common Headphone Types

Dynamic Driver:

This is the most common type of headphone available - partially because they’re inexpensive to produce. The transducer (driver) in these is made up of a diaphragm with a moving coil or voicecoil behind it causing the diaphragm to move in a pistonic motion, which creates sound. These diaphragms are often cones or domes of some kind, and can be composed of a variety of different materials to achieve a distinct sound. If you’ve seen a typical speaker driver, it’s most likely one of these.

Planar Magnetic:

These are less commonly found in closed-back headphones, and are less common in general, however over the past few years they’ve seen a significant increase in popularity amongst audiophiles. Planar magnetic transducers are actually acoustically simpler than moving coil transducers. A flat diaphragm with a conductive trace affixed onto it is immersed in a magnetic field, which causes the pistonic force required to create sound. On one or either side of the diaphragm is a magnet array that creates the magnetic field. Generally these transducers have to be much larger than moving coil transducers, but there have been some attempts at producing them in the small form-factor enclosures of IEMs as well.

Other:

It used to be only electrostatic transducers that comprised the more ‘esoteric’ or unconventional options for headphone drivers - unconventional in the sense that there was somewhat of a barrier to entry in the requirement of an energizer - but these days there are a number of other driver types cropping up as well. For electrostatic headphones, they create pistonic motion by using a flat diaphragm, not unlike planar magnetics, but instead of using a magnet array and a trace, they use static charge to cause the movement. In general, most electrostatic headphones will sit at the very high end of price categories, and are open-back in nature.

In recent years there have also been ribbon driver headphones or ‘earspeakers’ like the Raal SR1a, as well as HEDD’s Air Motion Transfer (AMT) driver headphones that move air in more of a squeezing fashion rather than the pistonic fashion of traditional transducers. At the moment, these are fairly unique technologies with respect to their place in headphones, but they have been around in speakers for a long time already.

Lastly, for in-ear headphones, the most common driver type is the balanced armature. This produces motion with a kind of springboard that has a pin attached to the diaphragm. These driver types are commonly used in groups to cover the full frequency range of human hearing from 20hz up to 20khz. So you’ll commonly see IEMs with multiple balanced armature configurations, and also with other driver types to handle different frequency ranges. Important to note is that if an IEM has more balanced armatures, that does not necessarily mean it’s better than an IEM with fewer balanced armatures. It’s all about implementation.

How to determine sound quality before you buy

Without being able to listen to a headphone, it can be difficult to get a sense of both A) what it’s going to sound like, and B) whether or not you’re going to like it. In fact, without hearing a headphone, it’s impossible to fully know what it sounds like. But at the very least we can indicate a general ballpark by looking at a headphone’s frequency response in relation to a known target.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll use the Harman research as a neutral reference point, however this is a very deep subject and there are multiple potential targets to be aware of.

In short, a headphone’s frequency response tells us how close (or how far) a headphone is from a neutral reference point, or target. So if you’re someone who likes more bass, you’ll want to look at headphones that have a frequency response with more energy below 150hz. If you want less bass, you want less energy in that region. More importantly, however, is that a headphone’s frequency response can tell you if there are any significant harmonic imbalances, shown by strong peaks or deviations that could potentially be fatiguing or not suit your preferences.

Often the most difficult area to get right is the balance between the upper midrange and treble roughly between 1.5khz and 9khz, or otherwise known as the ‘ear gain’ region. I’ve discussed this in another article, but in short, this is the region where our physical ear and ear canal most strongly amplifies sound, and our brain expects this kind of amplification. Some amount of ear gain is essential in order for a headphone to sound good, and you generally want a balance somewhere in the ballpark of what’s shown by the target. It can be more, it can be less, but some ear gain should be there because well, we generally all have ears.

Pictured: HiFiMAN Ananda Frequency Response

Of course, there's more to good sound quality than just adherence to a target and many reviewers, myself included, claim that these measurements are only one part of the equation - the most important part, sure, but at the moment they only tell us about a headphone’s tuning or as I’ve called it “tonal balance”. They leave out all the subjectively desirable or undesirable qualities of a headphone's sound that don’t seem to be easily available in graphs (harmonic distortion has also been demonstrated to not be correlated with subjective preferences past a certain point). But if you're brand new to high quality headphones, learning how to read frequency response graphs can do a lot when it comes to determining whether or not you'll like something.

At the same time, you should be very cautious when it comes to information that is solely based on measurements, because no matter what gets claimed on this topic, there is still more to the experience than what’s available in the current data analysis. That’s not to say that it isn’t all being captured by existing metrics like frequency response and total harmonic distortion - and no, it doesn't appear to be in CSD (cumulative spectral decay) when it comes to headphones either, because that's just frequency response as well - merely that a typical analysis of this data isn’t exhaustive of the experience.

Moreover, far too frequently an over-emphasis of the data can lead to committing the quantitative fallacy (focusing so hard on what you can measure that you miss highly relevant information that you could measure but currently are not), and in more sinister cases the emergence of false narratives around given products that are based merely on a measured result. What's worse is that sometimes measurements are done incorrectly, or on non-standard rigs, and in these cases you're bound to draw incorrect conclusions about the tonal balance. In my view, it’s the experience that’s of ultimate importance and measurements, when done properly, should be treated as a tool to help guide us along the way.

Do I need a DAC? Do I need an amp?

The short answer here is yes you do need some digital to analog conversion and you’ll likely want something to make it loud enough. When it comes to the DAC portion (the digital to analog conversion), the good news is that you already have this, that is if you have any device that you can plug headphones into and have them make sound (don't plug headphones into things they shouldn't be plugged into...). The bigger question is whether or not you need a standalone DAC, and to this the answer is... potentially, depending on what you already have available.

The benefit of a separate DAC (doing the conversion outside of your computer or smartphone etc.) is that it will be dedicated to the job of converting a digital signal, or in other words the digital information of the files you're streaming, to an analog signal, which is what causes your headphones or speakers to produce sound. Moreover, separating the DAC from the device will free it from any interference or intrusions that may be caused by the rest of the its functionality, such as in a smartphone or a laptop for example. Thankfully, there are a number of inexpensive standalone DACs that perform extremely well, and will easily be the "all you need" options for years to come. It should also be noted that some computers have dedicated DACs that perform well, and in these cases you may not need a separate device.

But the DAC doesn't allow you to connect your headphones just yet, you first need an amplifier with a headphone output, and yes there are motherboards, sound cards, and smartphones that have headphone amplifiers built into them too. But there are still reasons to use a dedicated device for this functionality. What kind of amplifier you need may be determined by the headphones you're planning to run, but once again there are a number of "good enough" options out there that are inexpensive and versatile enough for a wide range of headphones.

Examples of good budget DACs and headphone amplifiers (in no particular order):

  • Schiit Audio Modi Magni stack (or Modius Magnius for balanced)
  • JDS Atom Stack
  • Drop THX AAA Stack
  • iFi Zen Stack
  • Topping Stacks or combos
  • SMSL Stacks or combos

So while the whole source equipment question can be a daunting one for anyone looking to get into great sounding headphones, the bottom line is that it really needn't be an obstacle, and you don't need to consider an additional significant spend to get yourself up and running with the headphones you want to run.

With that said, many listeners who have found their ideal headphones already, or perhaps have a number of headphones they really enjoy and are trying to get the most out of them, end up looking into higher end source equipment.

There are certain synergies especially with ultra high end headphones that are worth thinking about if you want to enter the game at the top of the mountain. But it's important to understand that the benefits enjoyed here are insignificant when compared to the differences experienced when going from headphone to headphone. It's only at the point where you already know what your ideal sound signature might be where I recommend diving more heavily into higher end DACs or amps for particular situations.

The main reason for this is because far too frequently listeners will buy equipment to try to 'compensate' for a particular shortcoming in their headphones by acquiring much more expensive amplifiers and DAC equipment. While there may be some added benefit to the higher end source equipment, if those same listeners had spent that money on better headphones, or headphones that would suit a particular preference better, they'd end up with a better experience overall.

There used to be a popular notion that you should spend as much on your DAC/Amp setup as you do on your headphones, but this isn't at all applicable in 2021, in part because of how good the inexpensive options have become these days - especially when it comes to DACs. In many cases, listeners have a hard time distinguishing between $200 DACs and $2000 DACs, and while in my view there is a difference when you go to the high end stuff, it’s not even remotely proportional to the price increase. In short, put the majority of your setup spend into the headphones (or IEMs), as long as you're able to have a decent standalone setup for your DAC/Amp (or a DAC/Amp combo), and that doesn't need to be expensive. If you do want to go all out on amps and DACs, there are many options available, but don’t feel like you have to get the expensive sources to have a great experience with your headphones.

Examples of high end DACs and Amps:

  • iFi Pro Stack (Pro iCan and Pro iDSD)
  • Ferrum Oor (Amp)
  • RME ADI-2 (DAC)
  • SPL Phonitor XE (Amp)
  • NAIM Uniti Atom (DAC Amp)
  • Chord Hugo TT2 (DAC Amp)
  • Schiit Yggdrasil (DAC)

Should you care about going ‘Balanced’?

Generally this isn’t something to switch systems for the sake of, unless you’re in a situation where you really need the extra power afforded by a particular balanced amplifier. The potential added output power benefit of balanced systems is the main theoretical advantage they offer, but in general you should use the output that the source in question is primarily designed around. Sometimes this could be a balanced output, sometimes single ended.

This is also to say that balanced amplifiers aren't inherently better or universally better sounding than single ended amplifiers. With that said, if your amplifier does have a balanced output, you might as well use it, at least if it’s something that’s a good match with the headphones you’re trying to run. In situations where you have more sensitive or easy to drive headphones, pairing them with certain balanced amplifiers can actually lead to noise floor issues, and you don’t want that.

Should you care about tubes?

Many enthusiasts also swear by tube amplifiers, and my recommendation on this topic is that it only makes sense to do if you're going for a higher end tube amplifier. Maybe you've got a good solid state setup and you're looking for some tube character (a kind of pleasant harmonic distortion that creates a more 'euphonic' or 'sweet' experience), and that's when it's worth considering one of these options - as a way of complimenting a high end setup.

But it's important to note that most lower end tube amplifiers will roll off the bass and roll off the treble - and you can even see the difference in a headphone's frequency response when measuring on certain tube amplifiers. While some may find this roll off subjectively desirable, it's for this reason that if it's a question of value, you can get better value on a budget with solid state equipment (you don't need to spend more than $400 to drive just about any headphone out there sufficiently). Another thing to consider is that there may be an increase in bass response for certain headphones when used with higher output impedances as tube amps often have.

But, it can't be denied that there is something unique about tube character beyond any changes in frequency response, and so for that reason I do recommend considering them.

If you're looking to get into tube amps, I highly recommend learning about how your particular headphones (or the ones you're considering running with them) change depending on output impedance, and then look at the amp in question's output impedance. For example, with Focal headphones, you'll generally want lower output impedance, because they tend to boost the bass like crazy if paired with higher output impedances (too much in my opinion). Take that same amplifier and run it with a Sennheiser HD 800 S, and it's likely to stay the same or only boost it by a couple dB at most.

Beyond that, consider the range of headphones you're wanting to drive. If you're considering inefficient planars, that limits what you should look at. But if you're looking to drive headphones with more modest power requirements, the options open up a bit.

Examples of high end tube amplifiers to consider with certain headphone setups:

  • Ampsandsound Kenzie
  • Ampsandsound Forge
  • Ampsandsound Agartha
  • ZMF Pendant
  • Feliks Audio Elise
  • Feliks Audio Euforia

Should You Care About Cables?

You should care about cables to the extent that you enjoy using them. Some cables are stiff or microphonic, and this can get in the way of your listening experience. I recommend getting aftermarket cables in situations where the stock cable is unwieldy and annoying to use. Other than that, maybe you like the look of a certain cable or combination - it's entirely subjective at that point. What you should be wary of is claims that a particular cable makes a significant difference in terms of sound quality (often at an exorbitant price for the cable), as this has yet to be demonstrated conclusively. While I won't denigrate the experiences of those who claim they've heard a difference, it's also not something I can recommend as part of a meaningful purchase consideration that will tangibly yield sound quality improvements. For all other reasons, it makes perfect sense.

-Resolve

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